Many pundits explain Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as Putin wanting to restore the Soviet Union. I believe they’re wrong. In a rambling hour-long speech to the Russian people on the eve of the invasion, Putin made it clear his goal is to restore the Russian Empire, not the former Soviet Union. There is a big difference.
The Soviet Union was dissolved in the Belovezh Accords that were signed in December, 1991, by three of the four nations that had created it in 1922: Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. In its place, they created the Commonwealth of Independent States and subsequently, both Belarus and Ukraine voted to go their separate ways as independent nations.
The collapse of the Soviet Union occurred because communism, with its central economic planning and totalitarian control of peoples’ lives, was an abject failure. People were not flocking to get into the “worker’s paradise” where the government would protect them from exploitation by greedy capitalists; they were literally dying to get out so they could experience the high standard of living in the industrialized capitalist countries. Nobody, not even Putin, wants to return to the Soviet Union and communism.
Modern-day Russia is not a totalitarian state where the government tries to control all facets of its citizens’ lives.
It is superficially democratic (that is, it has elected officials), but wealthy oligarchs are the ones who are really in control. Most of these are former government officials who assumed private ownership of state-run enterprises when the Soviet Union collapsed. (Oligarchy in ancient Greek means “ruled by a few.”) These people are the equivalent to the powerful boyars in the old Russian empire.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, my wife and I watched a Russian mini-series titled Ekaterina about Catherine the Great, who ruled the Russian empire from 1762 to 1796 and was largely responsible for transforming it into a world power. The series was funded by the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation and originally broadcast on Russian television, then later picked up by Netflix and Amazon Prime.
I wanted to watch it for two reasons. It is in Russian with English sub-titles, and I wanted to refresh my Russian, a language I haven’t used for nearly 40 years. And I also wanted to see how the current Russian government would treat this period of history. The series is very well done. The cinematography and settings are beautiful, the musical score is very good and the acting is great. But I was surprised to see that the series generally presented the Russian Orthodox Church in a positive light, whereas during the Soviet era religion was banned. I was also surprised that Catherine is presented as a heroic figure and champion of Russian nationalism, whereas the Marxists in the Soviet era suppressed Russian nationalism to stress that communism was a worldwide movement.
Thus, I was not surprised when Putin, in his speech justifying Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, claimed that Ukraine is historically part of Russia and blamed Lenin and the Bolsheviks for creating Ukraine as a separate republic when they broke up the Russian empire. In other words, Ukraine should never have been a separate country, so he was justified in re-uniting it with Russia. That’s what he said.
Using that to justify the invasion of Ukraine is really bad news for other countries that were once part of the Soviet empire. These include Finland, the Baltic Republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, Belarus (although Belarus is already a Russian puppet-state) and a large chunk of Poland. Alaska was also part of the Russian empire, but was sold to the U.S. in 1867 for $7.2 million.
When the Soviet Union was dissolved, the Baltic republics and Poland quickly joined NATO, meaning that any Russian invasion of those countries would trigger the mutual defense clause that requires all NATO countries, including the United States, to come to the defense of the country being attacked.
Finland is not a member of NATO. The border of Finland is just 200 miles from Petrograd, the imperial capital of Russia. (It was renamed “Leningrad” during Soviet rule and is now called St. Petersburg.) Twice they have fought off Russian invasions: the first time during the Russian Revolution; then they held off the Russians again during World War II. Finland has managed to remain independent by masquerading as a Scandinavian country, which it is not. The Finns and their language are from central Asia.
Finnish president Sauli Niinisto stays in regular contact with Putin to maintain good relations. Their conversations are usually congenial, but Niinisto said in an interview last week that Putin’s tone has recently changed, and when he pushed back against Putin by standing up for his country’s sovereignty in their last call, Putin began to “officially” read to him a list of Russian demands. “That was a change in his behavior,” Niinisto said, “and I want to guess that he wants to be very decisive.”
Ukraine is not like Las Vegas where “what happens there, stays there.” What is happening right now in Ukraine is reverberating across Europe. And while Putin is demanding that NATO pull its forces back to their pre-1992 position, Russia’s near neighbors are asking for more troops and assurances that their independence and their borders will be respected by Russia.
Ultimately, the foreign policy of Russia will not be determined by what the Russian people want, or even what Vladimir Putin may personally want, but by what the ruling Russian oligarchs want.